Landmark research released today from the Royal College of Physicians suggests the annual mortality burden in the UK from exposure to air pollution is equivalent to around 40,000 deaths each year.
They estimate the cost of air pollution on public health and business at over £20 billion every year from illness and premature death.
Air pollution has been around for a long time and while we have cleaned up pollutants from coal burning we have seen road traffic levels increase considerably. In the UK there was 10 times more traffic in 2012 than in 1949.
Around half of the vehicles on our roads today run on diesel, which produces nitrogen dioxide and particulates. Inhaling particulates and nitrogen dioxide is thought to cause between 29-40,000 deaths each year.
Air pollution is harmful to everyone but some people are much more at risk because they live, work or go to school near busy roads or in urban areas with high levels of air pollution.
More children than ever before are growing up in towns and cities. They are particularly at risk in our diesel-focused transport environments, where cycling and walking are the exception rather than the norm.
There are however opportunities to change this. In England, for example, the Government is currently developing its Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy and has just finished consulting on reforms to the National Planning Policy Framework.
Serious lack of investment in cycling and walking
The Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy will be published later this year. So far the government has ring-fenced £316 million towards cycling programmes during the next five years.
The Government has found £15 billion over the same timeframe to build new roads which will further compound the problem of air pollution.
To put this in perspective funding for cycling and walking is 2% of that for roads.
We previously estimated a minimum of £10 per person per year is required if we are to reach the Government’s own manifesto commitment to double cycling in England.
The £316 million pledged so far equates to investment of only £1.40 per person per year in cycling in England outside of London, far below what is required to underpin a successful Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy.
Reforming national planning policy
The government is amending national planning policy. Investing in cycling and walking is not enough on its own, we need to take a long-term approach to reconsider how we design and build our cities and towns.
For example developing mixed zones that include homes, retail, leisure and employment together reduces the overall need to travel longer distances and makes it easy to walk or ride a bike.
Over time our urban environment must be redesigned following plans where people no longer need to use a car for everyday journeys, and travelling by bike, foot and public transport becomes the norm.
Redesigning public spaces and reducing reliance upon the car can turn streets from thoroughfares into destinations and public spaces in their own right, making places more liveable with knock-on benefits for local businesses and the community.
This is especially important as we embark on the biggest housebuilding programme since the 1970s.
With the right steps the Government could amend the National Planning Policy Framework to do just this, working alongside investment in cycling and walking to transform and clean our cities and towns.
The evidence is clear, now is time to act on air pollution for a cleaner, healthier future.